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What’s the Deal With 420?

What’s the Deal With 420?

            Nearly everyone who uses cannabis (and probably many who don’t) are familiar with “420” and its connection to marijuana. “Oh nice, I definitely know what that means and why it means that,” you might say when someone brings up or points out the number 420 somewhere. Well, here’s the thing: you don’t. Most people don’t. We know it has todo with pot – definitely smoking it – but the origin remains a mystery. Maybe someone told you that it was the California Penal Code for marijuana. Another guy told you something about the number of chemicals in pot, which sounds wrong but you aren’t exactly a chemist.[1] Maybe someone told you that it had to do with Hitler’s birthday, which is not true – don’t be friends with that guy. Have you seen his Facebook posts?

            The origins of 420 are actually quite simple and verifiable. The use of the infamous number originated with a group of 5 students nicknamed the Waldos[2] who attended San Rafael High School in the 1970s. One day, the group decided to go searching for cannabis plants that had been planted on the nearby Point Reyes Peninsula. They agreed to meet at a statue of Louis Pasteur on their high school campus at 4:20 PM. They toked and bravely wandered off to find their prized treasure with map in hand. Although it isn’t clear if they were successful on their journey, the Waldos continued meeting at their special spot at their special time and began referring to their smoking sessions as “4:20 Louie.”

Eventually the “Louie” part of the code got dropped in favor of the easier “420” This became a secret code among the friends which was used in a variety of ways associated with marijuana. Need a hookup? 420! Cops around? 420! The Waldos, merry jokers and social butterflies as they were, helped spread it through their town. Soon, however, the term would get a big push from some infamous marijuana users to push it into the American lexicon.

Waldo Dave’s older brother[3] happened to work in the local music scene managing bands and Dave would often work the shows and hangout afterward with the musicians. Through this work, the two brothers became friends with Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead Bassist. As the Dead lived in the same community as the Waldos, they would hangout and participate in “420” sessions with the band. The Waldos made a mark on the Dead who adopted the term. Soon the term was associated with Deadheads (fans of the Grateful Dead) and mythology around its origins began to mutate. By the early 90s, cannabis magazine High Times began using the code 420 in its publications and the rest is history.

[1] If you are a chemist, my apologies. Thanks for stopping by just the same!

[2] They were nicknamed the Waldos because they liked to hangout on a wall near the high school. Interestingly enough, one of the Waldo’s dads was the head of NARC for the San Francisco Police Department. Also of note, Lagunitas named a beer after them. If you go to their website ( they have documented evidence of their coinage of the term, pretty interesting stuff.

[3] The Waldos referred to themselves by Waldo and their first name.


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